Helping Foreign Students Thrive on U.S. Campuses

WASHINGTON — In recent years, the discussion on international students in the United States has largely been about how to best recruit talented students from overseas.

That may be changing. Now that foreign students are on American campuses in large numbers, the conversation is shifting from recruitment strategies to questions about serving their needs.

National data on international-student retention and satisfaction is scarce. But two studies presented at last month’s annual meeting of the Association of International Education Administrators may shed some light on those issues.

One study, by C.K. Kwai, director of international programs at the University of Maine at Orono, examined what factors contributed to the retention of foreign undergraduates in two Midwestern university systems. Mr. Kwai looked at several factors, including academic performance, integration into campus life and students’ schooling and experience before reaching the United States.

Just three of the factors that Mr. Kwai tested had a statistically significant and positive effect on student retention: grade-point average in the spring semester of the freshman year, the number of credit hours attempted (students who took heavier course loads, up to a point, were more likely to continue in their degree programs) and on-campus employment.

That two of the factors were academic is significant, Mr. Kwai said, since it suggests that good early academic advising could improve international student success. As for why campus employment would matter, Mr. Kwai hypothesized that having a job could make a student feel more a part of the institution.

Notably, however, Mr. Kwai’s results indicated that English-language skill was not a significant factor in foreign-student retention, at least as measured by performance on standardized English-proficiency examinations.

That finding seemed to contradict recent concerns that poor language skills, particularly among undergraduates from countries like China, were hampering students’ ability to succeed academically and culturally on American campuses.

But after the session Mr. Kwai cautioned that educators ought not to read too much into the seeming lack of connection between performance on English-language exams and retention. He noted a complaint by both international administrators and classroom teachers that such exams were often a better measure of test-taking ability than English skill, especially in countries with traditions of strong test preparation.

Nafsa: Association of International Educators, a nonprofit organization for international education professionals, is working with World Education Services, another nonprofit group that researches international student issues, to conduct a national study on the factors that contribute to foreign-student retention and success. The findings will be released this year.

Mr. Kwai’s co-presenter, David L. Di Maria, director of international programs and services at Kent State University, explored the attitudes toward foreign students of staff members in student-affairs offices at five Ohio public universities.

Staff members in offices like residence life, student counseling and career services often are asked to work closely with international students but do not have specific training to meet their needs. In fact, half of the respondents to Mr. Di Maria’s survey said they felt unprepared to work with this growing group of students and 90 percent said they wanted more training.

As many as 64 percent said their offices were not doing anything specifically to accommodate the foreign student population.

The message, Mr. Di Maria said, is: “Yes, international students have unique needs, but we’re not prepared to provide unique services.”

At Kent State, Mr. Di Maria has set up an international-students advisory committee to catch issues “before they snowball.” His office also is trying to provide better training for both faculty and staff members in working with international students.

As the foreign-student market begins to mature, the conversation among international educators is naturally shifting from recruitment strategies to retention, Mr. Di Maria said.

Ensuring that international students enjoy their time on American campuses and succeed academically is important to continuing recruitment, he noted, adding: “The best recruitment strategy is a good retention strategy.”